In August, I packed up my stuff and prepared for the drive to Cincinnati. Working out the details with Adam Motch, my aunt’s ex-fiancé, meant texting him once with my arrival date, then again on that date with my ETA. He texted back: I’ll be playing tennis tonight. Marsha should be capable of getting you situated.
I pulled over at a truck stop on the other side of Buffalo, filled my tank with gas, emptied my bladder in a shit-streaked toilet, purchased a small bag of peanut M&M’s and a can of ginger ale for breakfast, got back in my car and gunned it straight through the broken heart of Erie, Pennsylvania, taking tiny sips of soda and placing a single candy on my tongue every now and then. I let the chocolate dissolve unmolested then chewed the nuts ferociously, as if they were the problem. NPR helped me along, but only in spurts, as it was difficult to keep hold of a signal for more than forty miles or so, twenty miles for the smaller stations, but I preferred to listen to the radio in a more relaxed state of mind anyway, when I could give the voices the attention they deserved, when I wasn’t so distracted by the scenery, such as it was—fields of soybeans, wooded hills, an outlet mall every hundred miles or so. This could have been Wisconsin, Missouri, West Virginia, for all I knew. If I thought about it too hard, there seemed to be little if any correlation between a map of a state and the state itself, and this disconnect was enough to give me the foretaste of vertigo, so that every now and then I had an urge to do a tuck and roll out onto the highway. At such times I did my best to focus on the soybeans, the outlets, whatever, but not too hard, as it was also essential to keep my eyes and my mind on the road. None of this was particularly new. Driving had never been one of my strong points; operating a machine with the power to kill had always stressed me out. Too many variables to keep track of at the same time. The gas and the brake, the steering wheel, turn indicators, remembering to check my mirrors, tire pressure, oil level, stay between the lines. Not to mention all the factors I had no control over, the loose rear end of a tractor trailer sashaying into my lane, skunks, inclement weather, a fiendish flash of light bouncing off another driver’s rear windshield to blind me, deer, snapping turtles, bobcats, bear cubs, badgers, a mother armadillo trailed by a line of babies.
On the outskirts of the Cincinnati, an enormous black truck with monster tires nearly ripped off my driver’s side mirror as it passed me. I shivered. My fingers tingled. The vehicle had just one bumper sticker, the silhouette of a machine gun with the words COME AND GET IT printed underneath. I kept my eyes on the gun as long as I could–Come and get it, come and get it–but the truck was speeding, I couldn’t keep up; the image of the weapon disappeared in the maze of jockeying taillights.
It was just about dark when I got to the Motches’. The tired old house sprawled across a bluff, high above the Ohio River, ten miles east of the skyscrapers. I parked beside a four-car garage. All the doors were closed, ivy crawling up two of them. The air felt sticky here, heavy on my skin, and the crickets sounded more authoritative than the ones I’d left behind in New York, though they were saying the same old, same old. I could hear a siren too, faraway but plenty terrifying. Somebody was in the throes of it. Countless people, in fact, all the time, were in the throes of it.
“Mom?” I whispered, not because I’d arranged for a rendezvous with her ghost on the riverbank, but because the word itself, when spoken aloud, alone, could sometimes be a comfort, I’d found, a balm between me and the world, though in real life she’d seldom soothed me. In real life I was the one who’d soothed her. When I was little, we slept in the same bed, and often I’d wake to the sound of her crying. Mom? I’d whisper, crossing my fingers under the blankets. Mom? I’d say, hoping she was only having a sad dream and that she’d be glad when I eased her out of it.
The house before me was spired and enormous, but although the countless glowing windows of all shapes and sizes, some made of stained glass, were alluring, I didn’t want to go in. The structure whispered something along the lines of, Be careful what you wish for—but what did I wish for? Clarity. Clarity and also, perhaps, to sleep outside in the soggy grass, to seep slowly into the earth like a gentle rain. Where am I? What am I doing here? Mom? Somehow these had become rhetorical questions.
Marsha, Adam’s wife, met me at the front door in a satin bathrobe and kissed my cheek, then shook my hand. “Well, this is it,” she said. “Our farmhouse. It’s not much these days, but it was surveyed by Thomas Jefferson once. Yes, I believe it was Jefferson. We don’t keep gardeners anymore. There’s a man who mows if Adam calls him, and that’s about it. Just as well. The vines give us lovely privacy. Have you had your dinner?”
I shook my head.
“Good. I cooked this morning. I don’t cook at night. It’s nothing much. Just a nice piece of cod and a rice pasta. Don’t worry, the cod wasn’t frozen. I only eat fresh fish. Adam will eat any old rubbish, but I only eat fresh. I didn’t do any seasoning. No, I don’t think I did. With fresh fish there’s no need. I’ll give you the tour and then you can tell me what you think about it. About the fish, I mean, not the house. The fish and the rice pasta. It’s a lovely house, I know that much. Where should we start?” She looked at me expectantly.
“Here?” I said.
“Fine, the kitchen.” She sighed. “Well, it’s not so simple, really. Our cooker for one thing. It’s an AGA. See these four ovens? Four different temperatures. Two-fifty, one-fifty. No, one-fifty, two-fifty, three-fifty. No, four-fifty, three-fifty, I think. It takes some getting used to. But you don’t have to remember to preheat. You do need to remember not to burn yourself, though. Here are the oven mitts.” She opened a drawer that contained tarnished silver and said, “Never mind.” Then she opened the freezer drawer and held up a cut of meat wrapped in butcher paper. “This shouldn’t be alligator,” she said. “We do eat alligator when we’re at our New Orleans house, but why would we bring alligator this far north? Help yourself, whatever it is. And here are the light switches, one section of them. This one goes to the, the patio light?” She flicked it. “No! The light over the sink.” She flicked another switch and the room went mostly dark.
“I can probably learn as I go with the lights,” I said.
“That’s what you’d think, but they should really be labelled. I tell Adam, labels would be a great help to me, labels would save me a lot of time, but he’s always out playing tennis. Can’t spare ten fucking minutes. I’d do it myself but my handwriting’s gone to shit. Only God knows what’s in there,” she said, eyeing a large wooden buffet table.
We made it through half the downstairs rooms in this manner—kitchen, dining room, ping pong room, library—when she said, “I’m usually in bed by now. Or else I turn to a pumpkin.” She glared at me, sucking her cheeks in. “Just who do you think you are? Where do you get off showing up here in the middle of the night?”
“Oh,” I said. “Please, I didn’t realize what time it was.” It was just after nine. “You should go on to bed.”
She nodded, opened a door I hadn’t noticed and disappeared up a steep, narrow staircase more quickly than I would have thought possible for her. She practically scampered up it, and I worried she’d trip and come tumbling down, knocking me over when she landed. “There will be coffee in the morning, but no breakfast,” she said from the second floor. “You’ll have to fix your own breakfast; Adam and I leave for Greece at eight.”
Were they really leaving for Greece in the morning? I was having a hard time sorting between fact and fiction, between what was Marsha’s personality and what might be attributable to her dementia, or a side effect of her medication. That’s the problem with befriending old people. Impossible to know how they used to be—but maybe it could be a good thing, the not knowing. It could be like working on a puzzle, solving Marsha. I did want to ask her where I should sleep, but I thought it best not to follow her upstairs uninvited. I found the food she’d mentioned in the refrigerator and ate it cold from the pot, standing over the sink. The fish was light and flaky, fresh basil mixed in with the pasta, the best meal I’d had in days.
As I was washing up, a pair of headlights inched up the driveway. Instead of heading for the garage, the car pulled onto the front lawn. After a few minutes, Adam got out. He was touching himself. I knew I should look away but I couldn’t. At first I thought he was masturbating, but then I realized he was just getting his penis out, clumsily, to pee. He stood facing his Volvo, arched his spine and leaned backwards, holding his penis with one hand, his other hand raised to the sky in a fist. Was he peeing on his car? No, he was peeing over it, or pretending to. When he was finished, he shook not just his penis—the oldest penis I’d ever seen—but his whole body, the way a dog shakes as it emerges from cold water, gathering its wits for dry land. I’d heard on NPR that everyone’s favorite word is their name so I said, “Adam,” as I opened the door for him.
He was patting his pockets, looking for his key, I guess, though the door hadn’t been locked. “Why hello,” he said. “By all means, hello.”
“How was tennis?”
“Tennis! If that’s what you want to call it. Diverting, as usual. I take it she did her old light switch song and dance?”
“It’s quite the house.”
“It is, it is. This parcel was surveyed by Thomas Jefferson—”
“Marsha told me.”
“She did?” He looked mildly impressed. “She’s better in the mornings, you know. Almost normal. She can drive herself to the dentist in the morning, but by sundown her brain’s fried. She can’t remember how to use a corkscrew by sundown, which is a blessing in disguise, really. She gets mean when she drinks. Meaner. She always has. Me? I just get goofy.” He selected a bottle of white from the wine rack in the kitchen and held it up. The label read Andrew in silver script. “Can I interest you in a dear friend of mine?” he said. “This Andrew I know, he’s quite the guy.”
The wine was sweet and refreshing, and it seemed to have a sobering effect on Adam. When he’d finished his glass, he wiped his bifocals on his shirt and said, “It’s a nasty disease. You’ll have to forgive her. We’ll all have to keep on forgiving her. She used to be very smart.”
“Used to be?”
“Smarter. And a talented artist in her day, poor woman, and stuck married to me, that’s the worst of it—but what d’you care? You must be tired after that drive.”
He squinted at me. “Right, of course you do. Your aunt warned me you’re damaged goods.”
Antique medicine bottles—blue, brown, clear—lined the windowsills, like straight-backed soldiers bolstered by their own moral probity. A bowl of bruised nectarines sat on the counter like, like what? Rotting cannonballs? I could feel the pressure building up behind my eyeballs, but I didn’t let any tears go. I still hadn’t cried since my mother died, I hadn’t been able to. “Aren’t we all a bit damaged?” I said.
“Sure, but it’s okay. Setbacks, suicides—you get past all of them but the last one. Want to talk about it?”
“Me neither.” He yawned. “Time for bed, see if we can get any sleep. We’ll be packing all day tomorrow. Marsha and I’ll be packing, I mean. You’ll be staying right here.” He’d tricked his wife, told her their flight was a day earlier in hopes of leaving on time.
“Does she even want to go to Greece?” I said. “Is she all right to travel?”
Adam shrugged. “You have to die somewhere.”
“That’s—doesn’t it make you feel bad? Saying that kind of thing?”
“It makes me feel terrible, but I can’t help myself. Marsha likes Greece, actually. She likes the cuisine.”
He helped me carry my bags and my aloe plant in from my car, and led me up a wide staircase at the back of the house where Marsha and I hadn’t made it on the tour. Where the stairs turned, he paused and ran his free hand up the bannister, then in a circle around the newel cap, half a small globe perched atop half a larger globe. “You know what this always reminds me of?” he said breathily. “A breast. Young and perky, like one of yours.”
In fact, my breasts weren’t as perky as they’d once been, but I could see what he meant, especially when compared to his wife’s. I stiffened, focused very hard on the back of his head, and I suppose I better admit right now that I wasn’t upset, or even surprised, by what he’d said. You might even say that I was prepared for this, if I was prepared for anything. I could have dropped my bags and touched him, lightly, at the small of his back, or more passionately, at his hip. It was up to me, and I almost did it, almost, but before I could make up my mind he resumed climbing the stairs. He didn’t say anything suggestive when he gestured through the doorway to the room where I was to sleep, his daughter Abby’s old bedroom, and although I felt relieved as I watched him feel his way down the long dim hallway toward the front of the house, to the master bedroom, where his wife lay sleeping, I was also overwhelmed with longing, though longing for what, I could not have said. Surely, I wasn’t yearning for a father. I had a father, somewhere—he was passing through Crescent City, California, on his way up to Washington to harvest apples the last time he called me—and it was remarkable how little he interested me. For the record, I was not a mistake, or I was not a mistake of my mother’s; she’d taken a sewing needle to the condoms she kept in her purse. That’s how badly she’d wanted me at one point.
“Sweet dreams,” Adam said, looking back at me over his shoulder. It might have been romantic except that he tripped on a plant stand. The plant fell to the floor with a thud, but the pot didn’t shatter. He waved his hand at the mess and walked past it, and I think it was this carelessness of his that I most admired at this point, for it seemed that the world couldn’t get to him. It took me longer than it should have to figure out that for carelessness to be an attractive quality, it should be paired with great wealth, though obviously you don’t need money to live carelessly. My mother had been the prime example of this method, which isn’t to say she hadn’t made plans of a sort—pricking the condoms, the mysterious acquisition of the Ruger LCR, for instance. But an intoxicated poor person thumping down a hallway, knocking plants over, is seldom a turn on. I suppose this was a lesson I needed to learn firsthand. “Sweet dreams to you too,” I whispered.
My bedroom was cluttered, but the furniture was pretty, built of old, glowing wood. The walk-in closet overflowed with patterned jackets and dresses, too short for me in the torso and the sleeves. One bureau drawer contained a single pair of used pantyhose, which, when I touched them, made me think of a snake’s discarded skin. Another held soft, over-sized t-shirts for sleeping in, some boasting band-names in ugly, dripping fonts—Bush, Temple of the Dog. I changed into a black shirt that read Mother Love Bone. A poster of Drew Barrymore, curling at the corners, had been taped above the canopy bed beside a hesitant watercolor of the Green Mountains in a cherrywood frame, signed Marsha Motch ’07. I’d just driven six hundred miles in the wrong direction, but this painting made me wish very badly that I could see this ridge line in Vermont with my own eyes, so perhaps it was a masterpiece, though my desire was born mainly from my inability to distinguish between what was a mountain and what was a cloud, and the frustration, and curiosity, this led to inside me; I’ve always been a sucker for landscapes. When I’m in the right mood, any image of a hill, or even just a swamp, with, say, a gosling dicking around in the cattails, is enough to awake a longing inside my chest, a longing that feels borderline sexual, and is sometimes enough to set me in motion, looking for my keys, then a beautiful place to pull over.
I set my aloe plant on the windowsill above a large wooden dollhouse and knelt down to examine the menage. Candlesticks thinner than angel hair pasta on the dining room table. “What do you think you’re doing?” I said to the flat-footed man lying upside down on the staircase, the patriarch, it seemed. “Don’t you know you’ll get a crick in your neck if you fall asleep like that?” He made no response. I hadn’t expected him to. “My mother died, did you hear?” I added a while later. “She shot herself,” I said. In truth, I was mainly conversing with him to put off calling Grant, my fiancé. Grant and I made a point of talking most nights, and it felt good to have that connection with someone, a far-flung witness to my life, but I wasn’t up for the effort it required tonight. I texted him, Made it, snapped my phone shut and set out into the hallway in search of a bathroom, toiletry bag in hand. It helped to stick to a routine, I’d found, to brush my teeth and floss before bed every night at the very least.
Unfortunately, when I pulled for a piece of floss, I came away with only six or so inches and an empty box. Either this was a bad omen, or it was a sign that one phase had officially ended and it was time to move forward, or else, and most likely, it meant nothing. I rifled through the cabinet, where I found many promising items—massage oil, a worn teddy bear, dry shampoo, which I’d heard of but never tried, Tylenol that had expired in the eighties, which probably meant it was useless, but suppose it fermented and became more potent with time?—but no floss. This piece I had was long enough to extricate the bits of cod, tomato skin, and peanut lodged between my molars, but too short for me to dive into each crack with a fresh section. I had to keep rinsing the floss in hot water, not the end of the world.
When I got back to my room, I threw the Motches’ pillows off the canopy bed—“Take that,” I said to each as it smacked the floor—fluffed my mother’s pillow and arranged it in place. The mattress was heavenly, the sheets softer and more luxurious than anything I’d experienced in my life thus far, but despite the fine linens and the harrowing drive, I knew better than to expect sleep any time soon. Strange beds, even very comfortable ones, make for strange nights, and I’d left the door to the hallway open, just in case.
Alida Dean is a fiction writer and educator living in upstate New York. Her stories can be found in Big Fiction, Nashville Review, Ninth Letter, and Soft Punk, among other venues. She is a graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program and the University of Cincinnati’s PhD program in Creative Writing. She also works at the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts.